Thursday, February 29, 2024

The 1926 Ritz Tower - 465 Park Avenue


photo by the author

In 1920, newspaper columnist and editor Arthur Brisbane purchased his first property on Park Avenue near 57th Street.  Little by little over the next four years, he quietly bought up former mansions, assembling a significant corner site.  Brisbane had worked for William Randolph Hearst since 1897.  The publishing mogul had been developing Manhattan real estate for years, and now Brisbane followed his lead.  In 1925, he broke ground for a high-class residential hotel, The Ritz Tower, designed by architect Emery Roth.  (Roth brought in Thomas Hastings, formerly of Carrère and Hastings, to collaborate after his preliminary designs were completed.)

Construction had barely started when Brisbane began marketing his building.  An advertisement in The Spur on September 1, 1925 said in part:

The Ritz Tower, when it is completed in the Summer of 1926, will be forty stories in height, containing four hundred rooms.  It will embody the last word in architecture, in construction and in appointments.

The ad predicted The Ritz Tower would be "The largest and most perfectly appointed Apartment Hotel in the world."

On November 17, 1926, The New York Times reported, "The Ritz Tower, the new forty-story apartment hotel at Park Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, was formally opened last night with a dinner.  The hotel is under the management of the Ritz-Carlton Restaurant and Hotel Company, and with the exception of two floors which will be reserved for transient guests, the building is devoted to apartments which are leased for extended periods."

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Brisbane had created what The Edison Monthly called "the tallest apartment house in the world."  Costing him $6 million to construct (closer to $100 million in 2024), its Italian Renaissance design included a three-story limestone base designed by Hastings.  The beige brick-clad upper floors were almost entirely Roth's design.  The slender profile with subtle setbacks was described by Arthur T. North, writing in The Western Architect, as "skypuncture" architecture.

Critic Fiske Kimball approved of the silhouette, writing, "The Ritz Tower shoots upward like a slender arrow.  On one of the most valuable sites in the world, its area has been voluntarily constructed immediately above the ground stories with a preference for going high rather than spreading out."  Writing in Buildings and Building Management on June 21, 1926, Emery Roth noted, "In the design, the rather narrow plot one way was utilized to advantage architecturally in producing a distinct tower effect in sixteenth century period architecture."

While most critics applauded the design, one was notably less impressed.  Arthur T. North felt the tower "approaches the stage of painful attenuation."  He diplomatically added, "Perhaps the architect is not altogether at fault; the owner might have had ideas of his own.  We are told that the owner, Arthur Brisbane, whose writings we religiously avoid reading, has ideas and opinion on every subject and thing in the Universe."  He compared the obelisks on the setbacks to gravestones, adding, "What do gravestones think of being hoisted heavenward and placed on parapet and crest?"

The Edison Monthly explained, "On the ground floor, besides the bank space and several shops, are the main entrance halls, a tea room and a restaurant.  The promenade from Park Avenue is handsomely finished in French walnut, with a roman travertine floor and a ceiling of ornamental plaster in Italian Renaissance design."  A second "promenade" from 57th Street was "Pompeiian" in design, with bronze and crystal chandeliers.

The Edison Monthly, March 1927 

Because The Ritz Tower was a residential hotel, there were no kitchens in the suites.  Tenants could take their meals in the residents' dining room, or have them delivered via heated dumb waiters to the service pantries (which were "connected with automatic refrigeration," according to Roth).

Roth described the residents' dining room as "high-ceilinged--a formal room, executed in the French period, with soft tints of burnished gold.  The room has large wall mirrors and rare tapestry.  Large crystal fixtures add to the air of formal elegance which forms the dominating note."

Residents dined within a decidedly French atmosphere.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

There were also a tea room on the ground floor and a grill room in the basement level.

The Tea Room, photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Grill, The Edison Monthly, March 1927 

Emery Roth wrote that the "living rooms, libraries, dining rooms, chambers and halls in the suites have parquet floors, laid in fire-proofed red oak." 

Arthur Brisbane had reserved the 19th and 20th floors for his own 18-room duplex apartment.  Unlike the other apartments in the building, this one had a full kitchen and servants' rooms.  (Because The Ritz Tower was a residential hotel, the other residents did not need staff.)  He enjoyed three terraces, a leaded glass solarium and Renaissance palazzo décor.

Not long after opening, The Ritz Tower had unwanted publicity.  Among the initial residents was Captain Alfred Graham Miles.  He was recently divorced from Clover Louise Boldt, whose father had owned the Waldorf-Astoria.  On November 5, 1927, Miles returned home to find the locks had been changed on his apartment.  The New York Times reported, "He asked the manager why this had been done and was told that he was no longer wanted as a tenant."  (Further investigation by the newspaper revealed that he owed $759 in back rent and "was responsible for numerous unpleasant and disagreeable incidents about the hotel.")

Buildings and Building Management, June 21, 1926

Miles convinced his next-door neighbor to allow him to use his apartment to access the window ledge.  He then crawled along the ledge and into his own suite.  Certain that if he left his apartment he would never be allowed to return, he barricaded himself inside.  Eleven days later, The New York Times reported that his attorney, Aaron H. Kaufman, "has been acting as the Captain's Quartermaster Corps, bringing apples, sandwiches and other food to the beleaguered garrison."  In the meantime, Kaufman had initiated a $250,000 suit for damages for his client.

The hotel's attorney told The New York Times, "At all times he has been at liberty to leave, and the hotel has been willing to have him leave.  In fact, so eager is the hotel in the latter respect that it would gladly waive any indebtedness that may be charged against him."  Miles was unmoved.  On November 23, the newspaper titled an article "Siege Still On, Says Miles / Ritz Tower 'Prisoner' Says He Will Stay and Press Damage Suit."

Miles finally left on November 25, but the incident would not be over for years.  On August 3, 1929, The Ritz Tower, Inc. answered his suit--now for $50,000--which asserted "the manager of the hotel insulted him in the presence of guests," and cut off his mail and telephone delivery.  The Ritz's attorneys countered that his services were discontinued because he had not paid his rent and was no longer a tenant.

In the meantime, an impressive list of residents took apartments.  On May 29, 1928, for instance, The New York Times reported that Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., had leased the 37th floor.  "The apartment consists of four rooms and occupies the entire floor," said the article.

Hays was not the only tenant involved in the entertainment industry.  Actress Greta Garbo was an early resident, followed by Paulette Goddard, Deborah Kerr, and Kitty Carlisle.  

Unfortunately for Arthur Brisbane, his $4 million mortgage proved impossible to manage and on January 17, 1928 The New York Times reported that he had sold The Ritz Tower to his close friend and employer, William Randolph Hearst.  Taking an apartment in the building now owned by his father was George Hearst and his wife, the former Blanche Wilbur.

By now, William Randolph Hearst and his wife, Millicent, were living separately.  (Hearst was carrying on an open affair with motion picture actress Marion Davies.)  Nevertheless, Millicent occasionally took advantage of her husband's property.  On April 16, 1931, for instance, The New York Times reported, "Mrs. William Randolph Hearst gave a supper-party last night at the Ritz Tower for the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, who are on a brief visit here.  The rooms given over to the entertainment were decorated with Spring flowers."  Included on the extensive guests lists were society names like the Vincent Astors and Hermann Oelrichs, along with titled guests like Countess di Zoppola, Countess de Malroy, and Prince Serge Obolensky.

On the morning of August 1, 1932, a fire broke out in the basement.  About 30 fire fighters were "groping through the smoke-filled subcellar," as reported by The New York Times, when paint fumes in the cellar ignited, resulting in an immense explosion.  Two fire fighters were killed instantly.  "As survivors, shaken and bewildered, choked by the fumes and with blood streaming from cut hands and faces, tried to drag the dead and dying up stairways and ladders to the street, a second blast occurred," said the article.

The brick walls of the sub-basement were blown apart, the hotel switchboard was "wrecked," as worded by The New York Times, and electricity in the building was knocked out.  On the ground floor were the Double-Day Doran bookshop and the Thomas Kirkpatrick, Inc. jewelry store.  When the blast occurred, the plate glass window of Thomas Kirkpatrick was blown out, spewing $100,000 worth of jewelry onto the sidewalk and street.  The only customer in the Double-Day Doran bookshop fell behind a heavy chair, which prevented a portion of the ceiling that collapsed from injuring her.

Chaos reigned outside the blast area.  The New York Times, August 2, 1932

Pedestrians were thrown into the street or knocked to the sidewalk.  Residents on the upper floors, whose apartments had been rocked by the explosion, were trapped with no elevator nor telephone service.

Although the three clerks in the jewelry store were cut and bruised, they rushed to the street to gather up the jewelry (including a $65,000 emerald ring),  Passersby assisted them in sorting through the rubble.  All the items were recovered and taken to the bank across the street.  The blast initially killed seven fire fighters, and injured dozens of civilians and fire fighters.  An eighth firefighter, Edward R. Maloney, died at Bellevue Hospital on August 18.

The marriage of George and Blanche Hearst ended in divorce, with Blanche retaining the Ritz Tower apartment.  On the afternoon of March 31, 1934, it was the scene of Blanche's marriage to Cortlandt T. Hill.

The Ritz Tower continued to attract well-heeled tenants.  In November 1942, Benjamin F. Fairless, president of the United State Steel Corporation took an apartment, for instance.  And James Seligman of the famous banking family lived here at the time.

  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Living here in 1949 were Mr. and Mrs. Barry Thomson.  Mrs. Thomson was better known as the stage and screen actress Ruth Chatterton.  The celebrity broke the hotel's rules by sneaking in a hotplate and cooking in her apartment.  The aromas caught the attention of another resident, Wallace C. Strauss, who sued in March that year.  His complaint was not about the threat of fire, but of the "noxious odors."

On March 18, The New York Times said, "The odors that proved so noxious to the guests of the Ritz Towers Hotel have ceased and Ruth Chatterton, former star of 'Come Out the Kitchen,' who caused all the fuss, will come out the kitchen and stay out the kitchen."

In December 1955, The Ritz Tower was converted to cooperative apartments.  The hotel amenities, however, were retained.  Three decades later, on August 28, 1985, The New York Times noted, "When the Ritz Tower opened in 1956 [as co-ops], it provided room service and maids who changed the sheets and put out soap daily, and it still does."

Actor, director and producer Martin Gable and his actress wife Arlene Francis moved in around 1959.  They left their former Manhattan apartment, according to Francis, after "she was thrown out of her own kitchen by her cook."  The New York Times reported, "Mr. Gabel happily went along with the suggestion to try hotel life."

Tragedy occurred on June 23, 1960.  The Gabels were not home that afternoon when a dumbbell that had been propping open a window fell from their eighth floor apartment.  Alvin Rodecker, a visitor from Detroit, had been celebrating his 60th birthday with his wife in the Le Pavillon restaurant on the ground floor.  As they stepped out of the restaurant, the dumbbell fatally hit Rodecker on the head.  The Gabels later paid $185,000 in damages.

Among the Gabels neighbors in the building were radio personalities Goodman and Jane Ace.  During the 1930s and '40s their radio program Easy Aces kept audiences howling at Jane's famous malapropisms like "you could have knocked me down with a fender," and "The Ten Amendments."  

Among the Aces' visitors was playwright Neal Simon, who, after his visit, reportedly vowed to live in The Ritz Tower someday.  In the 1980s, he and his wife Marsha Mason moved in.  Other celebrated tenants have been fashion designer Valentino, author Elinor Glyn, and socialite Amalie Baruch Banks.

photo by Epicgenius

On September 16, 1984, The New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger countered Arthur T. North's assessment of the upper portion's "painful attenuation."  He described the "rich, rusticated limestone base on which was set a gracious and elegant tower, its setback profile a lively element on the skyline."

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